Dropping a Subscript

When I was in middle school, the United States invaded Iraq. For reasons that are not clear to me now, but probably having to do with my father’s anti-war politics, I decided I was against the invasion and that I should vocalize this in school and elsewhere when the topic came up.

This was an unpopular position at the time, especially in North Texas, and so I got lots of pushback and also saw lots of content on radio and TV that blasted war opponents. One of the things these people would say is that opposing the war meant that you did not “support the troops.” In response to this, war opponents would sometimes say that it’s the opposite: since war is bad for troops, opposing war “supports the troops.”

It was in digesting this debate that I consciously realized for the first time that a lot of what passes as debate and argument is actually people fighting over word meanings, aka semantics, linguistic disputes, word games.

In the case of “support the troops,” war proponents were using the phrase to refer to supporting what the troops were doing, i.e. fighting the war. They would sometimes say “you can’t support the troops if you don’t support their mission.”

War opponents were using “support the troops” to refer to supporting the well-being of the troops, i.e. not putting them in harm’s way.

This passes as a debate and I saw it presented as such dozens of times, but, in a formal sense, it’s not really a debate because the different meanings of the phrase “support the troops” were causing people to talk past one another. So there was no actual “clash” of arguments, just ambiguity.

It would have been possible to create a debate with the underlying pieces of this non-debate. All you’d need to do is restructure the conversation to be about whether the deaths, injuries, and mental trauma of the troops were worth enduring in order to liberate the world and the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein. This would push each group to actually argue about the things that were being mentioned in the “support the troops” conversation, forcing clash on each piece of that argument (how many casualties should we expect and how much good or bad do we think will come from ousting Hussein in a land invasion) and a clash on how to weigh these two pieces against each other.

But instead, in the discourse I was able to consume at the time, people could never get past the semantical question of what the phrase “support the troops” should be understood to mean, with each side seeming to think that, so long as they can define the phrase to be compatible with their preferred course of action, they are actually making a good argument for that course of action.

When I studied analytical philosophy in college, I read some papers that had found an interesting way around these kinds of word games. I don’t remember the precise content of these papers now and can’t be bothered to try to figure out where this approach came from, but the method was this: whenever an argument features two people using a key word in different ways, just split that word into two new words, with one assigned subscript 1 and the other assigned subscript 2. Then, from there, just use the subscripted words to disambiguate the conversation.

So, in the case, of “support the troops,” what we would do is say that, for the purposes of this argument, support₁ the troops will be defined as approving of what the troops are doing while support₂ the troops will be defined as protecting the well-being of the troops. Once subscripted in this way, war proponents can clearly say that they support₁ the troops while war opponents can say that they do not support₁ the troops but do support₂ the troops.

Dropping a subscript like this to short circuit a semantical debate struck me at the time, and even now, as extremely clever and, in a way, really funny. It identifies the ambiguity that is masquerading as argumentative clash and then blows up that ambiguity without actually taking a position on what the “real” definition of the disputed word should be. This makes it very frustrating for people who are prone to linguistic moves in debates because, every time they make a move like that, you simply drop a subscript on the word they are doing that for and neutralize their rhetorical strategy.

Sadly, dropping a subscript never caught on in the broader world of argument, even it seems within philosophy. But personally I’d like to proliferate it. So many of the arguments we have revolve around word meaning debates that people don’t recognize as word meaning debates and being able to simply drop a subscript and move on to the substantive clash (if there even is any) would be such a nice discourse tool.